Bob Hope’s nose. Angelina Jolie’s lips. Jay Leno’s chin. For most of us, these features—and the famous faces that frame them—are instantly recognizable. Now, researchers are discovering what cartoonists and other artists have known for years: We are adept at identifying caricatures of faces. In fact, says Margaret Livingstone, an HMS professor of neurobiology, we may be more skilled at identifying caricatures of people than photographs of them.
“Every step in visual processing involves the extraction of information from the world around us,” explains Livingstone. “But we remember extremes best.” That’s why artists exaggerate certain features. Take Pablo Picasso: His painting of Gertrude Stein, while abstract, is identifiable to anyone familiar with the writer’s wide forehead and strong nose.
There’s a scientific basis for this phenomenon. Recently, Livingstone and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify an area of the brain in macaque monkeys called the middle face patch, which consists almost entirely of cells dedicated to face recognition. When the monkeys were presented with a series of real and cartoon faces, their faceselective neurons responded similarly to both. And in nearly half of the cells, cartoon faces elicited the best or second-best response compared to real faces.
The findings, says Livingstone, show that caricatures signal a person’s identity through the shape of and the spacing of certain features, like the curve of a mouth or the distance between eyes. “Our cells appear to be attuned to such facial differences,” she says. “That’s why caricatures work so well.”